Editor's note: This is the second in a two-day series looking at the incoming legislative leaders in advance of the beginning of Montana's 64th legislative session. Yesterday's article featured incoming President of the Senate Debby Barret, R-Dillon.
On a fall bird-hunting trip in northeast Montana in 2009, Austin Knudsen and two close friends spoke frankly about the future of the state, and whether they should try to change things for the better.
“We were all young, aggressive guys, business-minded conservative guys,” recalls Scott Aspenlieder, a longtime friend of Knudsen’s. “That trip we talked more in-depth on how the three of us were going to get involved, at the local and state level -- that it was up to us to start making the moves to make a change and improve things, for our families and ourselves and our community and our state.”
Knudsen, a 28-year-old attorney then, says he’d been dismissive of the idea he should run for office, thinking he was too inexperienced. But after that trip, he decided to give it a try.
He ran for the Legislature the next year and won, defeating a Democratic incumbent. Now, barely five years later, he’s about to become one of the youngest-ever speakers of the Montana House, at age 33.
Knudsen, who’s from Culbertson, takes over the House’s top leadership post when the 2015 Legislature convenes in Helena today -- and he’s already had a taste of the rocky road confronting him.
The Republican-controlled House, led by Knudsen, is expected to be a conservative counterweight to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s agenda, using its GOP majority to press for conservative goals like a smaller state budget, tax cuts and “school choice.”
Yet Knudsen knows he has a potentially fractious GOP House caucus, including members who’ve shown they’re willing to work with Bullock and other Democrats on certain issues. He says he hopes to keep them together to achieve Republican goals.
“It’s no fun fighting your own party when you should be fighting the other party,” he said in an interview last week. “What I’m trying to convey to everyone in my caucus is that … we’re open-minded, that we’re not here to dictate, we’re not here to tell you how to vote, or kill your 'bad' legislation.
“I’d rather you work with me and work with your own party, rather than try to go cut a deal with the governor and the opposite party.”
Knudsen also has had to deal with some early brush fires, including flaps over a House dress code, proposed rule changes angering some House members and an unannounced GOP House caucus meeting that led to a lawsuit from Montana media, saying the meeting violated open-meetings law.
Knudsen says he considers these “minor things,” and that he’s shown he can be flexible, adjusting the dress code in response to objections from Democratic female lawmakers.
The deeper task, he says, will be to carve out Republican victories in the face of a Democratic governor, whose agenda looks a lot different than that of the conservatives led by Knudsen and other GOP leaders at the 2015 Legislature.
“The time for compromise is going to come,” he says. “It’s just too early to say what it’s going to look like, or where.”
Knudsen, who grew up on a farm and ranch in the state’s northeast corner, has been around politics for nearly 15 years, but says it wasn’t something he planned.
He went to Montana State University as an agriculture major and FFA state officer, but later switched to political science.
“I don’t think it was ever any one thing,” he says of his move into politics. “But after the (political science) classroom discussions, I sort of figured out that I was definitely a conservative.”
He volunteered on the campaign of then-U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns in 2000 and worked as a summer intern for Burns, giving tours of the U.S. Capitol to constituents, finishing up on Aug. 11, 2001 -- one month before terrorists attacked Washington, D.C., and New York City.
Knudsen went to law school at the University of Montana, graduating in 2008, and returned home to practice law. Within the next year or so, people approached him about taking on Democratic state Rep. Julie French of Scobey.
One of those people was Sen. Taylor Brown, R-Billings, who knew Knudsen from his time as an officer of FFA, the agriculture vocational program.
“I encouraged him to run, because he’s always had a deep background in leadership and a great family farming history in eastern Montana,” Brown says. “I think it’s important that anyone you encourage to run has to look like their district, and I think he does.”
Knudsen says he thought French had a liberal voting record in Helena but talked like a conservative back home -- and said so during the 2010 campaign. In an election year when Republicans picked up 18 seats in the Montana House, Knudsen beat French with 56 percent of the vote. He was 29 years old.
French says she thinks Knudsen votes a lot more conservatively than he portrays himself, and that she’s “really disappointed” over his lack of support for public education and other programs that help the less fortunate.
Knudsen doesn’t shy from the conservative tag, saying he believes in limited government, personal responsibility and individual rights: “I don’t believe the government should be involved in all facets of our lives.”
As for public schools, Knudsen opposed a 2013 bill that boosted school funding and sponsored a bill that would allow special “charter schools” -- but says he’s still a big believer in public schools, which his children have attended in Culbertson.
However, he says public schools should have some competition, just as other entities do, and that’s one reason he supports charter schools and tax assistance for parents who send their kids to private schools.
Like most Republicans, Knudsen -- whose district is near the epicenter of oil-and-gas development in the Bakken formation along the Montana-North Dakota border -- says Montana needs to do more to encourage natural resource development, from oil to gas to coal to timber.
“I think we should be doing everything in our power ... to make Montana a friendly place to come to and do business, create business, stay in business and live,” he says.
His friend, Scott Aspenlieder, who owns an engineering firm in Billings, says the pursuit and encouragement of extracting “wealth from the earth” is what binds him, Knudsen and most Montana Republicans.
Aspenlieder, who ran unsuccessfully for Montana secretary of state in 2012, also says Knudsen is a “natural leader,” and that he’s not surprised his friend is speaker of the House at age 33.
“He’s not a guy who takes a passive role,” Aspenlieder says. “He’s a very active, driven individual.”
Friends also say any House speaker has a steep learning curve, given that they get the job after only a couple of sessions in the Legislature, but that Knudsen is someone who can handle it.
Yet Knudsen himself acknowledges the road ahead won’t be easy, saying Republicans may have to temper their own expectations.
“We have to be realistic,” he says. “All the Republicans coming into the Legislature have to recognize that we’re dealing with a Democratic governor. We’re not going to be able to shoot the moon and get every conservative ideal that we hope for. We have to be pragmatic about it.”